Bill 21, the laicity law introduced last week by the Coalition Avenir Quebec (CAQ), is as bad as many Canadian Jews feared. As Janice Arnold reports in this week’s CJN, “under the proposed legislation, the public servants who cannot wear religious symbols on the job include police officers, prison guards, judges, Crown prosecutors, court security guards, teachers and principals in public elementary and high schools, park wardens and any public employees who carry a firearm.”
If the bill goes into effect, kippah-wearing Jews would be forced to choose between their jobs and expressing their religious beliefs (a “grandfather” clause will apply to those already employed in such positions).
Canadian Jews are rightfully disturbed by this apparent erosion of our freedom of religion. In Quebec, the Jewish community has voiced concern about the CAQ, and last week, the province’s Jewish leaders reiterated that worry. Rabbi Reuven Poupko, Quebec co-chair at the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), said his organization is “deeply opposed to the restriction and erosion of the freedom of religion of individuals in the name of secularism,” adding, “Our community believes that the secularism of the state is an institutional duty and not a personal one.” B’nai Brith Canada’s Harvey Levine put it a little more bluntly: “We believe (Bill 21) is a threat to the religious freedoms of Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and all visible religious groups in this province,” he said.
At this point, Bill 21 appears to have a relatively clear path to becoming law in Quebec. So what can Canadian Jews do about it? The first response should be for us to declare solidarity with our co-religionists in Quebec. They have been caught in the middle of the province’s religious accommodation debate for far too long, and now their apprehensions are being borne out. The Jews of Quebec deserve to know that we have their backs, and that we will do whatever we can to support them.
If you have friends or family in Quebec, especially in Montreal, where this legislation will have the most impact, give them a call or write a letter – tell them you’re thinking about them in this difficult time. Synagogue and day school leaders across the country would do well to reach out to their colleagues in Quebec, even institute pen pal campaigns (or whatever the digital equivalent is). We can make our voices heard in protest of this bill.
One of the most disappointing aspects of Bill 21’s introduction thus far has been the relatively muted response by Canadian politicians. Whether they are consumed with that other ongoing Canadian political scandal or simply afraid of costing their party votes in the upcoming federal election – seeing as how a vast majority of Quebecers indicate they want the legislation – the paucity of opposition to the bill so far has been dispiriting. Our community, in conjunction with others similarly affected by Bill 21, needs to play a leading role in changing that.
Above all else, we must remember that this is Canada, and that we have a Charter of Rights and Freedoms to protect us. Let’s meet this action with the collected intelligence and knowledge of our community.